What If More Colleges Were Like Amherst?

Despite a White House call to action, elite colleges face incentives not to enroll low-income students.

National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Jan. 20, 2014, 12:05 a.m.

Am­h­erst Col­lege is one of the old­est, most se­lect­ive, and most pres­ti­gi­ous lib­er­al-arts col­leges in the coun­try. It has also made a huge com­mit­ment to re­cruit­ing tal­en­ted stu­dents from all back­grounds, re­gard­less of their abil­ity to pay tu­ition. Today, non­white stu­dents out­num­ber white stu­dents on Am­h­erst’s west­ern Mas­sachu­setts cam­pus, and 23 per­cent of stu­dents qual­i­fy for fed­er­al Pell Grants.

Pres­id­ent Obama wants more se­lect­ive col­leges to act like Am­h­erst. “We want to re­store the es­sen­tial prom­ise of op­por­tun­ity and up­ward mo­bil­ity that’s at the heart of Amer­ica,” he told col­lege pres­id­ents, non­profit lead­ers and phil­an­throp­ists at the White House last week. A col­lege de­gree is the surest path to a middle-class life, he said.

Yet elite col­leges face power­ful in­cent­ives to en­roll dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­bers of wealthy stu­dents. Low-in­come stu­dents cost in­sti­tu­tions money, rather than bring­ing in rev­en­ue; they don’t tend to boost a col­lege’s rank­ing; and they can lack the re­sumes some ad­mis­sion of­fices look for.

Today, two-thirds of stu­dents at the na­tion’s 193 most se­lect­ive col­leges come from the top in­come quart­ile and just 6 per­cent from the bot­tom quart­ile, ac­cord­ing to the Col­lege Board. The White House has been taken with re­search that shows many high-achiev­ing, low-in­come stu­dents are not head­ing to elite schools. Between 2008 and 2011, at least half of low-in­come stu­dents with high SAT scores didn’t ap­ply to a single se­lect­ive in­sti­tu­tion that matched their abil­ity, ac­cord­ing to the Col­lege Board. Such stu­dents of­ten head to nonse­lect­ive com­munity col­leges and four-year schools, from which they’re less likely to gradu­ate.

In­creas­ing ac­cess to top col­leges isn’t just a ques­tion of en­cour­aging more stu­dents to ap­ply, said Cath­ar­ine Bond Hill, pres­id­ent of Vas­sar Col­lege. “Right now in the United States, there are not all that many schools that are need-blind and com­mit­ted to meet­ing full need. So many schools are already re­ject­ing tal­en­ted low-in­come stu­dents be­cause they can’t make the com­mit­ment and don’t want to make the com­mit­ment to pay the fin­an­cial aid,” she said.

Mak­ing a com­mit­ment to a fin­an­cial-aid stu­dent not only re­quires com­mit­ting a great­er pro­por­tion of en­dow­ment dol­lars to grants; it also means for­go­ing the rev­en­ue that a full-pay­ing stu­dent would bring in. Vas­sar re­in­stated need-blind ad­mis­sions in 2007. After the fin­an­cial crisis di­min­ished col­leges’ fin­an­cial as­sets, it be­came more dif­fi­cult for many col­leges to make that kind of com­mit­ment, Hill said. 

Am­h­erst’s ex­per­i­ence shows that re­cruit­ing stu­dents from all walks of life is, in and of it­self, ex­pens­ive. To meet its di­versity com­mit­ments, Am­h­erst has ex­pan­ded its ad­mis­sions staff, in­tro­duced a schol­ar­ship fund for vet­er­ans, set money aside to sup­port com­munity-col­lege trans­fers, and es­sen­tially giv­en the ad­mis­sions of­fice an un­lim­ited budget to fly in pro­spect­ive low-in­come stu­dents for cam­pus vis­its.

With an en­dow­ment of more than $1.6 bil­lion, Am­h­erst can af­ford these in­vest­ments. Yet it still has to make hard de­cisions: post­pon­ing a fa­cil­it­ies up­grade, say, in or­der to main­tain fin­an­cial aid and re­cruit­ment pro­grams. About 60 per­cent of Am­h­erst stu­dents re­ceive grants-only fin­an­cial aid pack­ages. For those who don’t qual­i­fy for aid, a year at Am­h­erst cur­rently costs about $64,000 in tu­ition, room and board, fees and ex­penses.

In­de­pend­ent col­lege rank­ings also don’t re­ward col­leges for so­cioeco­nom­ic di­versity. “What I will say, really frankly, is U.S. News is the en­emy of di­versity,” said Thomas Park­er, dean of ad­mis­sion and fin­an­cial aid at Am­h­erst Col­lege. In­sti­tu­tions can eas­ily ma­nip­u­late factors like share of ac­cep­ted stu­dents who en­roll and av­er­age SAT score, of­ten at the ex­pense of low in­come ap­plic­ants.

One way to boost key U.S. News and World Re­port met­rics is to re­cruit stu­dents through early-de­cision pro­grams, which bind stu­dents to at­tend­ing. “If you look at the early-de­cision pro­gram — that’s really a pro­gram for af­flu­ent kids. That’s not a pro­gram for first-gen­er­a­tion, low-in­come kids,” Park­er said. First-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents may have no idea that col­lege ap­plic­a­tions can be due as early as Oc­to­ber of their seni­or year.

Mak­ing com­pet­it­ive col­leges ac­cess­ible to a wider swath of low-in­come stu­dents will mean ad­dress­ing in­equal­ity throughout the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem. Af­flu­ent stu­dents tend to get bet­ter K-12 pre­par­a­tion, build a more dazzling list of ex­tra­cur­ricular ac­com­plish­ments, and score high­er on the SAT than their less wealthy peers— a fact that can say more about a fam­ily’s abil­ity to af­ford test prep than a stu­dent’s in­nate abil­ity, Park­er said. Both pub­lic and private col­leges alike have been shift­ing fin­an­cial aid money to­ward more af­flu­ent stu­dents, in a bid to both raise rev­en­ue and move up the rank­ings, the New Amer­ica Found­a­tion’s Steph­en Burd has doc­u­mented.

“The toughest thing is to fig­ure out what pub­lic policies would help en­cour­age in­sti­tu­tions — to face in­cent­ives to make de­cisions that would help us ad­dress this is­sue,” Hill said. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment could tweak tax treat­ment of col­leges. It might help if states changed their high­er-edu­ca­tion fund­ing for­mu­las to re­ward in­sti­tu­tions for gradu­at­ing low-in­come stu­dents.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is work­ing on a col­lege rat­ing sys­tem that would score schools on a vari­ety of cri­ter­ia, in­clud­ing keep­ing tu­ition af­ford­able and en­rolling low-in­come stu­dents. The idea is to ask Con­gress to dir­ect more fin­an­cial-aid sup­port to­ward in­sti­tu­tions with high scores. Hill said she wasn’t sure how much the pro­posed rat­ings would achieve. Obama could just call up U.S. News and ask it to change its rat­ings to re­ward di­versity, she sug­ges­ted.

The greatest push for change might come not from a White House re­quest, but from col­lege ap­plic­ants them­selves. “Smart kids want to be in a di­verse en­vir­on­ment,” Park­er said. They know Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety is be­com­ing more di­verse. They want class dis­cus­sions en­livened by dif­fer­ent points of view.

In­sti­tu­tions that don’t ac­know­ledge that shift might find it hard to keep at­tract­ing the best and the bright­est.

 

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